Monday, 4 December 2017

An introduction to Angkor

Angkor is one of the world's biggest archeological treasures. The site contains hundreds of structures, many of which have not been recovered yet. They were built between 800 and 1300 AD and are of impressive size and artistry.

Ta Prohm

Part of the mythical aura that surrounds Angkor stems from its recovery from the jungle. The city was abandoned in the 15th century after the capital had been sacked by a Thai army. Although people used to live there for a long time after and foreigners visited the site in the 16th and 17th century, much of the city was overgrown after centuries.

Ta Keo, rebuilt with Chinese help
From the 1920s French archeologists (Cambodia was a French colony at the time) have started to recover and restore the temples. After the peace process in the 1990s and a listing as a UNESCO world heritage site these works, supported by archeologists from all over the world, have sped up.

The top structure of Pre Rup. An early temple, with lots of bricks
What makes Angkor interesting is that there are structures built over a period of 500 years, and you can see different styles interacting. Those style changes also reflect changes in religion, for example the shift in focus between Hindu gods Shiva and Vishnu and later to Buddhism.


Stone surrounded by jungle
On the other hand, all that remains now is stone, surrounded by jungle. That makes it very hard to imagine the living city of a millenium hence, with the stone plastered, painted and covered in copper or gold, the wooden buildings and the surrounding countryside cut by rice paddies and irrigation canals.

And of course the people of the city are missing. Angkor must have had tens if not a hundred thousand inhabitants. Officials and traders from the provinces under Angkorian control must have visited, as well as foreigners. A late 13th century Chinese diplomat has left an account that adds a lot of colour to our understanding of daily life, but it is hard to envision in the present environment.

Water reservoir at Sras Srang

One touch of nuance however. Apart from the temples there remains another element in the landscape: the baray, or water storages. The two largest of them, to the west and east of the city, measure several square kilometers. It is still discussed whether they were built to supply water to the inhabitants and/or irrigation system, or for purely symbolic reasons, but they are still visible and in some cases partially filled to this day.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Back from South East Asia

It's been two and a half fascinating weeks. First ten days travelling through western Thailand in the footsteps of the 100.000 POWs who contributed to the construction of the infamous Burma railway (together with thousands of Japanese and perhaps 200.000 South East Asians). Then five days in Cambodia around the fabled temples of Angkor.

The party of premier Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge cadre, has effectively ruled Cambodia since 1979


It's been a lot of information to take in, even though much of that was self-inflicted. And as always while travelling, full of impressions that go beyond the immediate subjects of the trip. You can't help to notice that both Thailand and Cambodia have shed much of the essence of democracy despite still maintaining the trappings. Thailand is ruled by a military junta (that isn't very good at listening to the people) and the Cambodian government has just had the major opposition party banned.


Police booth in Kanchanaburi, Thailand


Yet life seems to be going on anyway. Military and police presence are light. In Bangkok and Siem Reap the Christmas season has started. Around the royal palace in downtown Bangkok we experienced the perfect storm of tourists, graduation day at university and the last opportunity to visit the ashes of revered former king Bhumibol (the exhibition has since been extended).

Tourist entrance to the inner sanctum of the royal palace, Bangkok


The poverty gap in these countries is still huge between those in the airconditioned zone (including us tourists) and those outside. Yes, I caught a cold.

Christmas decorations are prepared before the luxury mall in Siem Reap (opened in 2016)
And Bangkok is a powerhouse, ever expanding its network of flyover roads and sky trains. I remember that the first skytrain rode between my first two trips in Thailand in 1999 and 2000. Now there are several lines and an underground. Then there were 6.3 million inhabitants, now 9.6 million.

Flyover roads under construction, Bangkok


It was also intense to make this trip. I'm not a group travel person and when you are around 35-40 co travellers, that takes some energy out of me. Most of these people had a direct personal relation to the railway, which for them made it an emotional experience that I could only relate to from a distance. I wouldn't have survived if it had not been for my travel companion Michael. We never ran out of topics to discuss and events to comment on, however silly.



I will be posting a few bits from the Angkor part over the next week, but the Thailand-Burma railway story will arrive after that and in a different format as I have a distant personal stake in it.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Pink Panzer

This is a small side project I did for a friend of mine who recently became a father and called his daughter Mathilda. "Not after the tank, of course," he said. Because he's a tank hugger and we do exchange tank trivia. The mother of his child didn't seem pleased with that, so an evil plan hatched in me...


A few day ago, I giftwrapped it and handed it over to the young father...


And apparently, it's been appproved.


For those interested, this is a 1/100 Zvezda model of the British A12 Matilda tank.

Of course, my inspiration comes from the legendary Girls und Panzer anime series.




Sunday, 12 November 2017

Forgotten colonial war revisited

Ok, just a small step back to one of the books about colonial wars I posted on some time ago. I follow the excellent podcast series New Books in Military History, which has an interesting selection of new material. Some time ago I listened to a comparison of genocide and conquest on the Eastern Front in WWII and the the American West.


What I found interesting is that the author, Westermann, took up this project based on discussions in his classes, where he found the students would naturally compare different forms of genocide. When it comes to genocide, Nazi Germany remains the archetype/Idealtype, although the last decades our historical knowledge of other genocides has widened.

Of course looking at genocide involves a discussion of the definition, but most definitions go farther than just the mass murder of a particular group with the intent of total destruction. Some include the destruction of culture and separate identity.

While it easy to dismiss referring to the Holocaust as a Godwin, in this vase it is actually helpful.

Westermann notes that what happens 'at the sharp end' of policy doesn't necessarily align with what happens at the centre. And while what happens at the sharp end may seem very similar in both cases, Westermann argues that the main difference between the American and the German case is that in the former, the authorities were not bent on genocide and in the latter they were.

It's worth listening to his argument in full.



Thursday, 9 November 2017

Summer painting seamlesly devolving into beer and games

This is what I did for our club's Summer Painting Challenge (inspired by Curt's). Ran from late June till halfway September. I set myself 400 points to paint, although I felt 200 would have been more  realistic. In the end I ended up somewhere above 300 points, so setting the goal probably made me more productive than I'd otherwise been. That's a good thing I guess.


This was the main bit: a bunch of 18th century civilians, some scenery and goodies for scenarios and Frostgrave. And a bunch of farm and pack animals for the same purpose.



But I also finished a unit of British light infantry for AWI. This is them still glossy because I didn't get them sprayed with matt varnish before the received their baptism of fire.


Ten wargamers got together in September for a Wargame Beer and Game session, with me hosting Rens and Henny for a practice game of Sharp Practice 2, and seven other guys doing a Big Chain of Command game. Beautiful table!


And a very good dinner was had afterwards.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Return from Crisis II

Apart from the paper, I also brought home some wargaming terrain: I had been looking out for a game mat that I could use for both Frostgrave and Sci Fi (of course I had originally started out for two). I ended up buying a 4'x4' mat from Kraken. I was swayed by the guy from Kraken showing a WH 40K battle report video which used this mat and it looked dead on.



Last year I bought quite a lot of styrofoam stuff to build large stone buildings for Frostgrave. But as I've got two left hands, I have never actually dared building anything without adult supervision. So this year I decided to just buy a bunch of ready made ruins which I can quickly assemble and actually use.


Finally, I also got some Footsore miniatures to round off my Anglo-Saxon army for Hastings. That's part of the annual project from the Dutch Miniature Wargames facebook group, this year themed for the high and late Middle Ages. More about that later.

Ooh! And the guinea pigs!

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Return from Crisis I

Yesterday visited the Crisis wargames show in Antwerp. Others have made more extensive reports on the show, so I'll not try to compete. But for me mostly it was a pleasure talking to so many people about their day and future plans.



I had planned to buy the latest edition of the Volley & Bayonet rules set to go with my Napoleonic French and Austrians for the 1809 campaign. Picked up the Marechal d' Empire /General de Division rules from Baccus as well. Now have to decide quickly which one I want to use for a participation game at PolderCon.

The books I bought just show that I can't be trusted to stick to one period. The book on the Iberian theatre of the War of Spanish Succession I bought because I met Nick Dorrell a decade ago in Eastern Europe. We then discussed the WSS (which I have this fascination for) and I sent him some stuff from Dutch sources.

The other WSS book I bought because I'm a sucker for logistics and systems of command and control. And I was intreagued to find that this author had at least read a few Dutch sources. I believe this was the first time Helion & Company visited Crisis. I was glad to shake the hand of Andrew Bamford, whose A Bold and Ambitious Enterprise (and follow up sourcebook) on the British campaign in the Low Countries in 1814 I used when writing on Waterloo. Consider that a recommendation.

And 10th century warfare in Germany just taps into my new found interest in that period. I hope to blog about how that came about. 


Note: Yup, it's been too quiet up here. And I stand reprimanded for that. As last year, I will try to do better. However, I haven't figured out how to do that, yet, without spending a lot of time. Which has been the reason why I dropped out before. It's okay to spend half an hour once every few days, but I have found that blogging takes more time if you want to do it well. But let's give it a shot.


Sunday, 5 March 2017

Symmetry on the western front in WWII

The bazooka vs panzer book whetted my appetite for some more WWII western front stuff (I still have that 20mm US army miniatures hanging around), so I picked up this new Osprey pitting German and US armoured infantry against each other.


There didn’t seem to be much difference between the Panzergrenadier and armoured infantryman when it comes to equipment and armoured fighting vehicle. There were some differences in replacement policy but those went for the armies as a whole and didn’t affect tactical and operational employment. Zaloga refers to a German preference for attacking mounted in their AFVs, but that is not what happens in the examples, so we don’t have any idea how that plays out.

Armoured divisions on both sides suffered when defending because they had a smaller infantry complement than an infantry division. And while the Americans had the luxury of being on the strategic offensive and thus only having to defend occasionally, the German army by the end of the war had to plug gaps with whatever came to hand, thus putting the armoured divisions at a disadvantage.

Apart from an offensive or defensive stance the determining factor in the outcome of this match up was that the Americans had much more stuff and were better at coordinating them. So while the Germans even struggled to get artillery support for their attacks, the Americans could pour artillery on enemy attacks, supplemented with air attacks when the weather was good.

My main problem with the book is that the combat narratives, and especially the last one, are not that clear and are badly supported by the maps. Especially in the last case it is hard to figure where the combat is taking place to St Vith and other places which are constantly referred to in the text. To sum up: I lost interest at some point.

Looking back it wasn’t written in the stars that the last four books I read would all be from the Combat and similar Duel series, but that’s how it played out. I’ve warmed to these series but my impression has been confirmed that the best of these are the ones that pit different styles of warfare against each other. With the armoured infantrymen and the World War I askaris, there is a less interesting dynamic than between Apache vs US cavalry and bazooka vs tank.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Asymmetry on the western front in WWII

After a couple of colonial contests, I was happy to shift to World War Two. I had been intreagued by the match up between the bazooka and German close defense systems for tanks.


Steven Zaloga is an authority on tank warfare, and his knowledge on this subject does not disappoint. The dynamic interaction between antitank tactics and close defense is explained well, debunking some myths on German mesh side armour. And there were some weirdly interesting solutions suggested, like the Vorsatz P.

It was all rather marginal though, as infantry weapons were responsible for only a small amount of tank losses, with tanks, aircraft and artillery doing the most damage. The main impact may have rather been to give infantry the idea that they wouldn’t have to face tanks empty handed. Also the bazooka was used far more often to take out enemy strong points than to fight tanks.

Zaloga then delves into one example where tanks and infantry were pretty evenly matched, during the Ardennes offensive in December 1944. As this fight took place in favourable circumstances for the infantry, with limited vision due to fog and houses, the infantry was able to get close to the tanks and on their weak side and rear armour.


Sadly, lacking in the account is the perspective of the German tankers and their attempts at close defense here. All in all the technical/tactical account of the start didn’t mesh too well with the combat narrative.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

And yet another forgotten colonial war

Even when I was young, we didn’t play Cowboys & Indians any more and Westerns have declined as a movie theme. But despite the relative neglect, the Indian wars remain a fascinating colonial conflict.



By the time the U.S. army took on the Apache tribes in the middle of the 19th century, the issue was no longer in doubt. The demographic and industrial weight of the US totally overshadowed that of the hunting and farming Apache who number in the tens of thousands.

This was a war of relatively small battles, neither side bringing more than several hundred combatants to the fight. However, each Apache killed had long term consequences for the survival of his tribe, while there was a steady flow of new recruits for the cavalry.  At the same time, expanding settlement reduced the hunting grounds on which the Apache depended, thus forcing them into raiding.

Nevertheless, the struggle was a long and bitter one, which could only be brought to an end by employing Apache versus Apache. This although the cavalry itself made significant strides in its counter guerilla capabilities. Equipment and tactics were adapted to the climate and Apache warrior society.

Likewise the Apache adapted to the western world, improving their weaponry, and finding ways to sabotage telegraph communications. They also used their superior knowledge of the terrain to move and live undetected.

The only way to really get at them was to use scouts from rival tribes. There was little sense of common cause between these tribes and for many warriors the opportunity to stick to their warrior lifestyle, plus a gun and free meals, was too good to be missed.


McLachlan does an excellent job using first hand accounts from both sides to illustrate the challenges that both sides faced and how the social-political dynamics of the Apache and white settler society made conflict inevitable. The narrative flows well, the analysis is crisp and the illustrations fit the narrative. Probably the best Osprey book that I’ve read on ‘non-western‘ armies.